Anxiety and Stress

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is always with us and can provide helpful energy for moving forward with tasks. However an excessive level of stress can be very counter productive leading to a reduction in performance and a sense of being overwhelmed or hijacked by anxiety.

In my experience as a psychotherapist I would say that the number 1 problem people struggle with is how to deal with stress. An inability to manage stress can lead to depression, eating disorders, addiction, phobia’s and obsessive compulsive disorder.

The cycle of stress is usually triggered by the brain mislabelling an event or circumstance as threatening and dangerous. Often this is an exaggeration of the truth or a complete misreading of the truth.  For example an office worker may be working at her desk one day when they see their boss talking with another colleague at the other end of the office. She can’t hear what they are saying but occasionally they look over at her. She is sure they are plotting how to fire her. This thought triggers a gripping fear of forthcoming doom and rejection. She leaves the office early and on her way home drops into the shop that sells the bagels she likes. She buys 6 and has eaten most of them before she gets home. She is now feeling sick and makes herself vomit as soon as she gets back to her apartment. This bulimic reaction to stress is quite extreme. But fundamentally it rests on a mis reading of a situation. Her boss was actually planning an office party for her birthday!

The question we could ask here is why did this person make such a catastrophic interpretation of the situation? When peoples rational minds get hijacked by stress it is usually because they have a cluster of unconscious narratives about themselves, others and the world in general. These narratives probably get formed very early in life and can be shaped by trauma, loss, disappointment and painful experiences. These lead to statements such as

The world is……

People are…..

I am …….

How you complete these sentences will tell you a lot about the narratives that control your life. These narratives act as the filter or lens through which we view and interpret reality. These interpretations often say more about the brokenness of our past than the reality of the current situation. These interpretations are the main trigger for fear, anxiety and stress.

What do we do about stress?

The first and most important thing is to slow down our thinking and become more aware of what is happening to us. Stress hijacks the mind in less than a second. Learning to relax and develop a less stressed state of mind can be helped by exercise, yoga, meditation and taking time to be still and notice what we are experiencing. Stillness and noticing is a process that takes practice. When being quiet and just noticing what is happening many distracting thoughts can pop into the mind. The mindfulness approach to stress recommends noticing these thoughts and worries but without reacting to them. This holds the thoughts, fears and narratives at greater distance from our observing conscious mind.

Once we can be more mindful we can also increase options for how we respond to worry thoughts. We can consider other narratives and interpretations of our reality that are not so ‘catastrophic’ or frightening.

If you would like more information on how to cope with stress I run teaching workshops on this topic as well as individual consultations.